Ask the doctors | Keeping Pets Rabies Vaccinations Up to Date – Times-Standard
Dear Doctors: We just heard a story on the news about a man who was bitten by a bat and died of rabies a few weeks later. We see a lot of bats in our area, so we are concerned. Why did rabies treatment not work? What is rabies, anyway?
Dear Reader: You are referring to a case that happened last August in a community just north of Chicago. An 87-year-old man woke up to find a bat on his neck. The bat, which was captured, tested positive for rabies. Despite urgent warnings that he needed immediate preventive care, the man refused.
Treatment for rabies involves an initial injection of a medicine called rabies immunoglobulin, which is made up of antibodies against the rabies virus. It is given near the bite to prevent infection. This is followed by a series of four strokes to the arm over the course of two weeks. The medicine in these injections teaches the immune system to recognize and fight rabies infection.
Unfortunately, the man developed symptoms consistent with rabies a month later. These include headaches; neck pain; difficulty controlling motor function of the arms, hands and fingers; difficulty with speech; exhaustion; and numbness.
Rabies is almost always fatal and the man has died. However, with the medical care that the man has refused, the disease is 100% preventable. Once the virus begins to cause symptoms, it is too late for treatment to be effective. Therefore, whenever exposure to rabies is suspected, treatment should begin immediately.
Rabies is caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system. It is transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal, most often by bite. In other parts of the world, where up to 60,000 people die from rabies each year, dog bites are the most common cause of infection. Here in the United States, thanks to strong veterinary vaccination programs, the disease is most often found in wild animals. This includes raccoons, skunks, foxes and, yes, bats.
Cases of rabies in humans are fairly rare in the United States, with fewer than three reported each year. The death in Illinois was the first in 67 years in that state. This is testament to the effectiveness of the treatment, which is received by 30,000 to 60,000 people each year. However, it is still important to practice prevention. Currently, physical contact with the saliva of an infected bat is the leading cause of rabies exposure in the United States. Wildlife experts recommend never touching a bat with your bare hands.
If you know or suspect that you have been bitten by a bat, seek medical attention immediately. If possible, the bat should be captured and sent to a lab for rabies testing. But just because you have bats in your area doesn’t mean you’re in danger. Wildlife experts say that only a fraction of 1% of bats carry rabies. Stay safe by keeping your pets’ rabies vaccinations up to date, and when it comes to bats and other wildlife, keep your distance.
Eve Glazier, MD, MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, MD, is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Send your questions to [email protected], or write to: Ask the Doctors, c / o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Due to mail volume , personal responses cannot be provided.